Cities Take the Lead on U.S. Immigration Policy

by Alejandra Barrio


The national conversation on immigration is climbing to new heights of hostility.

We see this hostility in Donald Trump’s call to “build a wall” to deter illegal immigration from Mexico, refusals by 31  state governors to accept refugees within their borders, and even in President Obama as he calls for raids of immigrant families from Central America.

Yet beneath the surface, a quieter conversation is emerging. Across diverse political environments, mayors and city planners are comparing notes on how to promote a welcoming environment for immigrants in their cities.

We have witnessed rifts between national and local immigration policy before. A noteworthy example is the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s, when various cities refused to allow local law enforcement to assist with federal immigration enforcement efforts.

Yet the call to Welcoming Cities is taking on a character of its own. Before 2000 for instance, only two city offices for immigrant integration existed across the country (New York, established in 1984, and Boston, established in 1998). Today, 26 official city offices have been established, 18 of which were created in the past five years. The USC Center for the Study of Immigration counts 37 other local-level bodies – task forces, initiatives, efforts, etc. – a number that has been growing steadily in recent years.

These offices don’t get the headlines that presidential debates command, yet they are quietly reshaping the conversation around immigration issues in our country.

These cities are starting to systematically address the issue of immigrant integration – the degree of economic, social, and civic mobility of immigrants once they are here in the United States – of which there has previously been no formal policy at the federal level.  Dialogue is shifting from focusing on the gaps and needs faced by immigrants, to considering the role of immigrants in ameliorating gaps and needs facing cities, such as population loss, aging population trends, and labor market gaps. As a result, places like Tennessee – which saw one of the fastest rates of immigrant population growth of any state between 1999 and 2005 – are interested in reducing tensions that come from a changing population, sparking a newfound focus on relations between native residents and newly arrived immigrants. These efforts have gained traction in the White House, which recently launched a campaign to strengthen immigrant integration.

The growth of “Welcoming Cities” is worth paying attention to. Though federal policy takes on a harsher tone toward immigrants, an emerging body of research indicates that the U.S. is faring better than its European counterparts on indicators of immigrant integration, such as education and employment. The employment rate for immigrants in the U.S. is higher than Europe, and the children of U.S. immigrants are much more likely to succeed at school than the children of immigrants to Europe.

Moreover, by creating a welcoming environment for newly-arrived immigrants, cities support broader efforts to temper radicalization of immigrants facing discontent with their new home. Cities are doing this by working to educate receiving communities on their new homes and by working to reduce xenophobia among native- residents. Perhaps for this reason, some are encouraging Europe to turn to the U.S.’s approach toward immigrant integration as a model for combating violent extremism.

In The Citizen and the Alien, Linda Bosniak describes immigration laws in the U.S. as “hard on the outside, soft on the inside.” On the one hand, the U.S. espouses strict border and immigration controls, yet on the other hand, the U.S. adopts social liberties compatible with a democratic legal system, such as equality and due process. Cities are becoming arbiters for the confusions entailed in this “hard and soft” system, acting as guides for both new immigrants and changing local communities. As long as congress remains stagnant in reforming immigration laws, the role of cities in navigating these waters will continue to grow.

Alejandra Barrio is a dual Master’s degree candidate in Public Policy and International and Area Studies at UC Berkeley with a special interest in international migration and education policy.